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Crisis PR

By The Drum | Administrator

March 14, 2003 | 12 min read

Matthew Kelly, John Leslie, Pete Townsend – as each month passess by another well known celebrity becomes embroiled in scandal when their name is linked to some variety of deviant behaviour.

Certain celebrities are guilty, think Jonathan King, and some, such as Neil and Christine Hamilton with the alleged rape incident, are not (though surely there must be something we can put them away for).

When the tabloid press is served up such tasty manna the companies and organisations closely associated with these individuals are left walking in a potential PR minefield. Imagine: One misplaced step, one seemingly innocuous off-the-cuff comment, and, bang, there goes your reputation, your career and your place on the PTA. At times like these, qualified advice is absolutely essential.

We at The Marketeer decided it was time to test how well the heads of in-house PR at various firms would perform when confronted with such a headline-stealing situation.

We therefore constructed a topical scenario, see below, and asked them for strategies that would transform damage escalation to limitation.

Why not read through the responses and see who you’d want manning your firm’s defences if allegations started to fly.

The Scenario

Company X is a leading commercial television broadcaster that produces numerous high-rating light entertainment and drama programmes.

Although the firm maintains a leading position within the broadcast industry it has suffered over the past year due to diminishing advertising revenues. High-profile coverage of the situation in the financial pages hasn’t helped the free-falling share price, and the City’s confidence in the strength of the business appears to be shaken. The last thing that company X needs is further negative publicity.

Then, one Sunday morning, a tabloid exclusive reveals that one of the firm’s star television presenters is currently under investigation over allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman several years ago.

None of the allegations have been proven. However, the male star has voluntarily appeared at a police station for questioning. The enquiry is ongoing, with the star steadfastly protesting his innocence.

In the week following the initial revelation, it comes to light that the TV star was also accused of attempted rape during his time at university. The case collapsed and he was not convicted. In the days preceding this latest disclosure a number of women approach tabloid publications claiming that they have been sexually abused by the celebrity at some point over the last ten years. One of the accusers was a minor at the time of the alleged incident.

The high-profile chairman of company X is at a loss over what action to take. The star has numerous light entertainment shows that top the ratings, is currently filming a new, much-anticipated drama series and is also due to the host a “night-long” charity appeal special in the next month. In the past, the chairman has been careful to forge a strong relationship with the star, who has been courted by rival companies.

Solution 1

Colin Middlemiss

PR Manager

Business Express

The first thing to realise with this situation is that there are no winners - except maybe boosted circulations and the public’s addiction for celebrity gossip. The approach has to be one of quick, ruthless, decisive action, which minimises damage for the chairman and company X.

Company X cannot be certain that the celebrity is guilty, but it cares about guilt. He has been portrayed as, or is, a sex fiend, something that guarantees immediate vilification and gradual obscurity. Short-term strategy is protection without all the facts – make a decision that limits damage and ensures the focus of the story shifts from presenter and company X to just presenter.

The Presenter

He must stay out of the public eye and concentrate on co-operating with the police and hope that they come to a quick conclusion; this will determine what his future is.

ï No charges – he may be able to rebuild his career.

ï Charges brought and found guilty – it’s the end of any public career.

ï Found not guilty – he may be able to salvage something in less mainstream areas of the media.

The Chairman

There is an opportunity for the chairman to be seen as a dynamic, hands-on leader, someone able to deal with a crisis in an effective and decisive way. However, he has to ensure that company X is not seen as part of the story. This may help to restore some confidence with shareholders.

Actions to be taken within 24 hours of the news being broken:

ï Remove presenter from the airwaves either by persuading him to step down or suspending him on pay, pending enquiry.

ï Brief press of situation. The message is “innocent until proven guilty. However, to defend any action while in the public eye is impossible”. Company X has taken control of this situation.

ï Work to secure a replacement big name or names for presenter’s outstanding commitments.

ï Show distant support until case is concluded – when there is a need to re-evaluate.

The Company

Has to be seen as supporting an employee who has not yet been found guilty, but also ensuring the best entertainment for its audience. For example: Have I Got News for You just after the Angus Deyton affair made great viewing but the continuous disclosure of new facts made it impossible for him to continue presenting the show. The messages for the company are:

ï We support our employees.

ï Our mission is the entertainment of the public.

Until you have hard facts it’s hard to determine a long-term strategy. However, remaining decisive, taking action as situations arise and distancing the company from the situation will enable company X to continue working on longer-term strategies to increase shareholder perception.

The current “trial by media” will come to an end; it makes great reading, sells papers, but the media will eventually trip itself up. The celebrity bubble will burst and there will be some spectacular fall-out, which may end high-profile celebrity’s co-operation with the press.

Solution 2

Sue Nicholson MIPR

Head of Media Services of Northumbria

Police & Chair of the Association of

Police Public Relations Officers.

Obviously, I’m used to dealing with this type of situation from a completely different angle but that doesn't mean the police service is impervious to the impact of such revelations on both a suspect and the wider public.

Forces don’t actively expose individuals to early media scrutiny (although no organisation is impervious to unauthorised leaks). We don’t name individuals who are under investigation prior to their being charged with an offence because the enquiries may come to nothing. We are as liable for defamation, or prejudicing the outcome of a fair trial (contempt of court), as any news outlet. But once someone is charged, and bailed to court, this becomes a matter of public record.

If asked, however, forces confirm that “a man/woman has been arrested on suspicion of (whatever) and is helping with enquiries”. The jigsaw effect then comes into play and the media, already aware of who the individual is, blazes ahead.

The Chairman’s action plan:

1. He's got to suspend the star. No choice. Sexual shenanigans are top of the agenda for the media and the fact is that, however fast a fictional TV detective solves a case, in the real world it takes a long time to conclude this sort of investigation. The company can’t afford the sustained negative coverage – and the public deserves decisive action.

2. Issue a supportive but realistic statement – to the media, and as a personal letter to all key advertisers, investors and shareholders. Something like: “While X has been a favourite at the company and among viewers for many years, this is obviously a very distressing and difficult time for everyone. As a responsible and caring broadcaster, we have to take on board the feelings and views of the public, and the impact these allegations are likely to have on them. It is important to remember that X hasn’t been charged or found guilty of any criminal offence and, in the eyes of the British justice system, is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. We do not condone trial by media and believe X has to have the chance, at the most appropriate time, to tell his side of the story. We are committed to providing him with moral support for the foreseeable future but we believe it best that he has some quiet time in which everyone can come to terms with the situation. His involvement with the company is being suspended until this whole matter is resolved, however long that takes.”

3. Chairman to be available for interviews, having anticipated likely questions.

4. Direct the company’s news and magazine programmes to treat the story in an impartial way. Topics and interviews should be set up with the usual talking heads, as they would be if it involved any other celebrity.

5. Recruit replacements for star’s programmes.

6. Provide welfare support for the star (including advising him to get legal/PR advice).

7. Over the longer term, the company needs to consider responses to possible further revelations and devise communications strategies for the ultimate severance or reintegration of the celebrity.

Solution 3

Peter Gibson

Media Manager

ENCAMS

With any crisis situation, you need to act swiftly both as a company and a PR department. While a fire has been lit, you can stop it getting out of control by always anticipating the media’s next move.

First, the celebrity should be moved to a safe house and told to leave any comment to his employers and his agent. The company then needs to be watertight, and staff told that any contact with the media should be made through the press department. Good internal communications are a must at this stage. The phrase “no comment”, however, should never be used! During this process, we would proactively make arrangements for a spokesperson to conduct interviews – and meet media interest head-on.

While our first comments would be based on a statement, we would have enough confidence in our spokesperson to naturalise this so it doesn’t come across as cold.

We would say that the allegations are serious and state how we’ve suspended the celebrity until the investigation is complete. We should also reiterate our company policy on how we check potential employees’ criminal records and how, if an incident of indecent assault happened here, the member of staff would be dismissed.

It is also important to stand by the celebrity to some extent too, without over-stepping the mark. He has been a good employee, thoroughly professional and popular with his work-mates. No claim of sexual assault has been made against him in the workplace and (yes, again!) if it were he would be dismissed if found guilty.

A policy of openness seems frightening to some, but if you meet initial media madness head-on, it stops journalists from filling in the blanks with speculation!

During the next few weeks, we would not comment further because we don’t want to jeopardise the ongoing investigation. But again – it’s in the way you say this, isn’t it? It should revolve around comments such as, “We want to make sure the allegations are looked at properly and that the victims and our celebrity get a fair deal.” We should strive to ensure all the time that our staff are not making media comment – and do all we can to keep our celeb away from the glare.

If he is convicted then we repeat our earlier strategy – with a naturalised statement saying how our company policy is to dismiss any employee found guilty of a criminal offence. Repeating again that such an offence wouldn’t be tolerated in the workplace should also be high up on the agenda. We wouldn’t advise any further comment on his character – but a little sympathy for the victims wouldn’t go amiss.

Ironically, we would advise much more caution should he be acquitted. Certainly, a proactive statement saying that we will be meeting up with him to discuss his future and we are pleased the investigation is now over is important, but we need to still ensure some distance. Indecent assault is a serious crime – and mud sticks.

We would definitely recommend a cooling-off period before he hit the screens again.

So, which solution to our crisis scenario do you agree with? Have any issues been over-looked or important factors not considered? Is there another way to tackle the scenario? Send all your views to alan@themarketeer.co.uk.

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